“The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” – a Dialectical Approach

Any thinking worker – no less any real socialist – will say, “of course the people of Ukraine have the right to defend themselves, arms in hand, against the Russian invaders.” That is what the Ukrainian people are doing, and they should be supported not just politically but militarily.

The invasion places the whole issue of the right of people to have their own country under the spotlight. That is the ABC’s of not only “human rights” but socialist theory in general. Traditionally, socialists call it “the right of nations to self determination”. And we defend those rights.

Aleksandr Dugin
How is it, then, that the person who’s probably the most important ideologue for 21st century fascism, Aleksandr Dugin, proclaims exactly that phrase – the right of nations to self-determination?

Dugin speaking at far right GRECE conference

Most people here in the US have never heard of Dugin. Maybe most in Europe haven’t either. But according to author Anton Shekhovtsov, Dugin is “a well-known newsmaker [in Russia] and popular political commentator [who] has a significant influence upon public opinion in Russia [and] is pushing it in a right-wing direction.” (The following quotes and explanations come from or are based on this same article.) So his ideas matter because they evidently influence the general culture and thinking of a wider Russian population.

Shekhovtsov explains that Dugin focuses on what could be called cultural or ethno-nationalism. Dugin says that what really defines a nation is the culture of its ancient people, and that this is what binds nations together more so than national borders or governments. On this basis, Dugin calls for an organic ethno-cultural process,” in other words ethnic cleansing.

Dugin sees a degeneration of modern culture, which according to his view stems from the West, specifically the Atlantic’’, by which he means Britain and the U.S. For him, acceptance of homosexuality is a foremost example of this supposed degeneration. Putin also sees it this way.

Dugin says that the will of any people is sacred. The will of Russian people is sacred a hundredfold.” In other words, hiding behind his cultural nationalism and exclusionism is the doctrine of Russian superiority, which justifies Russian imperialism, just as “manifest destiny” was used to justify U.S. imperialism in a previous era.

Proud Boys in action. They believe in the same thing as Dugin does – ethno-nationalism.

In the United States the Proud Boys and America First have this same ethno-nationalist ideology, and it is not that different from the ideology of Modi in India or of Zionism or of the Islamic State. In the case of the Islamic State, they seek to break down all the national borders that were drawn up by the British and French in the Sykes-Picot Agreement after WW I. This accord established the nations of North Africa/West Asia (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.) In its place, the Islamic State calls for one large Islamic “caliphate”, ruled by themselves. All imperialist powers including Russia, as well as the capitalists of that region, oppose this because it would totally destabilize the entire region and the world.

Ethno-nationalism and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
While Putin may oppose ethno-nationalism when it comes to the Islamic State, he supports it when it suits him, for example in justifying his invasion of Ukraine, as does Dugin. In July of 2021, Putin wrote about the “Ancient Rus people” (more ethno-nationalism) who were all bound together by ancient culture. Based on his views expressed in that article, Ukraine did not exist as an independent nation; it is simply a part of Greater Russia.

This is just his excuse to roll over Ukraine.

US and Western Capitalism
US and Western European capitalism oppose the invasion because it conflicts with their power and their economic interests. (Any serious socialists must oppose it too, but for different reasons, as we will see.) Much of the US opposition to the Russian imperialist invasion is justified by the supposed inviolability of established borders. Of course, that inviolability didn’t apply when US capitalism decided to invade Iraq.

British and French imperialists established these borders in this region to suit themselves.

But US capitalists’ hypocrisy aside, there is a deeper and more complex question that springs from the very way the countries – those nation-states – in Eastern Europe and elsewhere were formed, how they were created in the first place. We have already touched on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, through which the countries of N. Africa and W. Asia (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) were formed. It was not very different in Africa, for example in Nigeria or Zimbabwe. The different colonial powers competed with each other for which of them would get to loot and plunder which parts of Africa.

South Caucases and the Baltics
Let’s consider the process closer to Russia: The entire region of the South Caucasus and the Baltics was invaded by different forces – Genghis Khan, then the Ottoman, Persian and Russian empires. The early Vikings played their part as did Sweden and even Lithuania later. So did Germany. Every invader left some of the peoples in its wake. For example, the Ottomans left Turkish people in what is now Azerbaijan. They also left some of their traditions, including the Muslim religion and a language based on the original Turkic language. But it wasn’t only in Azerbaijan. Those same peoples were scattered throughout the region, including in what is now Armenia.i

Estonia – like so many others, its borders were drawn up in blood.

Or consider Estonia: Its border with Latvia was drawn up by the governments of Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union after WW I. That border cuts one town, Volka, right in half. That meant that the Latvians on one side had to either move or learn a new language. Not only that, but at the time that Estonia became independent of Russia (1991) one quarter of the entire Estonian population were ethnic Russians, most of whom didn’t even speak the Estonian language.

Monument War”
The whole situation led to the crisis of the “Monument War” of 2002. That “war” would be funny if it weren’t an indication of the human disaster that could happen yet in Estonia. To commemorate the war against the Soviet invaders, a largely ethnic German town built a statue of a soldier. The problem was that the soldier was a German soldier with the German/Nazi uniform. Shortly later, when Estonia was seeking entry into the European Union, the existence of a statue with a Nazi uniform became an issue, and the Estonian government ordered its removal. This led to a riot in that town and police had to use tear gas to disperse protesters before the statue could be removed. (It later reappeared on private land.) Then another statue became an issue: a statue of a Russian soldier, erected to commemorate the fight against Nazi Germany. Other Estonians protested. “If the German statue had to be removed, then this one has to go too,” they said. But the ethnic Russians objected to this, and in April of 2008 there were street battles between the ethnic the contending forces in that town. In the larger scheme of things, that was a relatively minor incident, but it illustrates the irresolvable deeper issue which could break out into a larger crisis yet.

This same potential exists throughout the entire region:

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh
Consider Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1992, a full scale war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The war involved ethnic pogroms (mass ethnic riots). According to Wikipedia ¾ of a million Azerbaijanis were expelled from Armenia and up to a half million Armenians living in Azerbaijan or just inside Armenia were expelled also. Such expulsions of course involve mass riots, murders of thousands of women, children and the elderly, never mind the suffering that follows. It also inevitably leaves bitterness and even hatred etched deeply into the collective consciousness for decades to come. According to de Waal, that ethnic division is even greater among the younger generation than the older ones.

To understand this war, we must return to its roots in the entire region’s earlier history.

One small “detail” helps us understand the enormous complexity of this disaster: The fact that in the early 20th century there were large populations of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Georgia! Furthermore, until relatively recently there was no Armenian “country” or state. There was an ethnic group that was bound together by common language, religion and customs, but the region in which they lived was geographically undefined. It was the same for Azerbaijain. As de Waal explains in his book The Caucasus: “In 1905, Azerbaijain was still merely a geographical name on a stretch of land whose group identity consisted of being Muslim.”

According to de Waal, the ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived peacefully together for centuries. In rural areas, there were towns that were mainly (or maybe entirely) composed of one or the other group, but these towns engaged in commerce and trade between each other, and social relations developed out of this. In the late 19th century, with the rise of the oil industry, Baku and Batun became major cities, and there the two ethnic/national groups were integrated. (Something similar developed in Tiflis – now Tbilisi – Georgia, whose population at that time was composed of 1/3 Armenians,1/3 Russians, ¼ Georgians and the rest being a mixture of Azerbaijanis, Ossetians, Tatars, Persians, Greeks, Poles, Germans and Jews.)

An Armenian and an Azerbaijani youth together. For centuries they lived together in harmony.

De Waal quotes an Azerbaijani emigre in Paris who in 1935 described the situation in his village in previous years: “‘In our villages folksingers were almost all Armenians. Our cooking, dress, customs and behavior were the same. For millenia we lived not only in mutual trust and respect but – it will not be an exaggeration to say – with real love.’” According to de Waal, this was reciprocated, and Armenians gave their children Muslim names. There must have been intermarriage in that case. In other words, the distinction between “Armenian” and “Azerbaijani” was fading into the mists of time and a new culture was emerging.

To no avail. The fading of one imperial power and the rise of another and return of inter-imperialist rivalries created new tensions and instability in the region. So did crises within the dominant imperial power.

Collapse of Russian imperialism and rise of Stalinism
In 1905, the Russian empire was rocked by the “general dress rehearsal” of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In the region of Armenia, this resulted in the “Armenia-Tatar War” in which up to 10,000 were killed. Then, with the world imperialist crisis of WW I, there was the “Armenian genocide” in which tens of thousands of Armenian Ottomans were slaughtered or driven out.

The entire national issue was further complicated by the mass deportations carried out by Stalin and his henchmen. In order to crush any sort of national loyalties, Stalin deported entire national minorities from their historic homelands to Siberia or elsewhere. Millions of people died on the way and subsequently. Among others, that is what also happened to the Tatars in Crimea, and it is part of why ethnic Russians are now the majority there.

One region – Nagorno-Karabakh – had been assigned to Azerbaijain because Azerbaijani shepherds drove their herds there during a certain time of year, so assigning to to Soviet Armenia would have been more complicated because the shepherds would have had to cross a border. However, the majority of the permanent population was Armenian. There were not major conflicts, but tensions existed under the surface. For one thing, the Armenians felt distanced from Azerbaijan because it was poorer than was Armenia.

Collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of ethno-national violence
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, some armed gangs started to infiltrate the region – the “entrepreneurs of violence,” de Waal calls them. Armenian American nationalists also started to return from the United States. They helped build nationalist fervor. These forces teamed up with a layer of Armenian intellectuals who had built careers around Armenian history and together they started agitating that Nagorno-Karabakh should be part of Armenia. Azerbaijain of course resisted.

The atrocities in Khojaly are an issue still today.

On February 23, 1992 Armenian forces attacked the town of Khojali and forced the Azerbaijanis to flee. 485 of them – women, men and children – were mowed down as they tried to flee through the deep snow. Back and forth it went, pogrom after pogrom. De Waal estimates that overall 750,000 civilians were displaced in “one of the biggest refugee exoduses” since WW II.

By 1994, a truce was achieved. It seems the main reason was simply that both sides were too exhausted to fight anymore. But nothing was settled. Nagorno-Karabakh became autonomous, but under the effective rule of Armenia. De Waal’s description of the ceasefire zone is pregnant with the potential dangers but also the possibilities: “By the mid-1990s, the ceasefire line had been a quiet network of trenches across which conscript soldiers would occasionally take potshots at one another and sometimes meet to exchange cigarettes in no-man’s land.”

Entire region with similar tensions
Every country in the Transcaucasus and the Baltic regions is different, but also holds similar dynamics. Region after region of different countries hold populations that are a minority of the population as a whole. Potentials for pogroms and wars exist alongside potentials for greater integration and a blending of the various nationalities, just as the Azeris and the Armenians had started to do in an earlier era. Such a blending would not mean the dominant culture swamping the others, but a genuine integration and the drawing on different aspect of all the cultures.

Territorial integrity”
What does respect of territorial integrity, or national borders really mean then? In almost all cases the borders were drawn up in a sense artificially by different imperialist and sub imperialist forces. Those forces drew them up for their own convenience plus as part of an agreement between other imperialist powers. These agreements – “treaties” – simply amounted to a recognition of the balance of strength between those powers. So these borders were and are partially or largely artificial.

Potential for unity vs. “outside” interference
The simple act of the Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers sharing cigarettes shows a potential. That Azerbaijani emigre described this potential: The natural merging of the different cultures into one common one. This doesn’t mean the minority is simply absorbed by the majority. It means a genuine merging out of which something new develops. Without outside interference, that is what would have happened in Nagorno-Karabakh and the entire region.

But that is exactly the point. “Outside” interference is inherent in class society, both by the domestic ruling class of that society as well as by the “outside” ruling class of different imperialist powers, both large and small. Both Fatland and de Waal picture the role of the intelligentsia as being crucial. So does Yuliya Yurchenko’s in her book about Ukraine. Most of the intellectuals tended to gravitate towards their own capitalist class and away from the working class, especially if the working class is not organized as an independent force. Often at least a wing of these intellectuals had a vested interest in stirring up nationalism. They combined with the “entrepreneurs of violence”, various capitalist political opportunists, and different imperialist and sub imperialist powers to stir up ethnic violence.

What defines the countries of this region – first and foremost their borders – is arbitrary and inherently unstable. That means the very existence of the defined and distinct country or nation-state is also. But the capitalist class cannot rule without the nation-state.

Meaning for Ukraine
This does not in any way imply that imperialist Russia’s invasion and attempt to conquer Ukraine doesn’t matter. If the fascist-connected Putin succeeds, he will crush all democratic rights in Ukraine. He will also crush the culture, including the language, of the people of Ukraine.

Nor can an invasion by a country ruled through democratic means resolve anything. Look at the U.S. invasion of Iraq, ruled by a hated and brutal dictator (Saddam Hussein). It resolved absolutely nothing.

As for the slogan “the right of nations to self-determination”, this history shows that the slogan is not a one-size-fits-all slogan, especially when applied to particular regions. For example, some on the left call for a referendum in Luhansk and Donetsk regarding which country they want to join or if they prefer independence. Such a referendum is impossible now and would be impossible to carry out democratically as long as Putin & Co. rule there. Even otherwise, though, how could it be carried out when millions of people fled the region in the years after 2014? Would they be entitled to vote, or could they even, considering that some of them are probably living outside of Ukraine by now. Or take the case of Crimea: For centuries the Tatars were the majority of the population. Then the great majority of them were deported by Stalin. Today, ethnic Russians are the majority, and since Putin annexed Crimea those Tatars who remained are further oppressed. How could their rights be guaranteed through a “democratic” referendum? In the future, if Putin manages to hold on to the territory he’s seized, it seems very possible that he’d send loyal Russian settlers there. Then what would a “democratic” referendum look like?

Each case must be decided on an individual basis.

Ukraine miners on strike. Their action showed a way forward.

The way forward can be seen in the Ukrainian miners’ strikes of the late 1980s. Here is what Oaklandsocialist wrote in a previous article about the events surrounding those strikes: ‘In the late 1980s there was a mass strike movement of miners in the Donbas region. (The following quotes and statistics are from Yuliya Yurchenko’s book Ukraine and the Empire of Capital.) In 1989, miners at 173 out of 226 mines – a half million miners in all – went on strike. They elected strike committees that became semi-permanent institutions These were embryonic workers councils in the making, but the workers didn’t know where to go with them. The miners called for educational programs, but that layer of society with access to history and a wider understanding of the world – the petit bourgeois intellectuals – were intent on Ukrainian nationalism and ignored these strike committees. So, the miners’ intent on fighting the “Soviet system” found but one alternative: a first step back to capitalism through “enterprise autonomy”.’ And with the “enterprise autonomy” came the rise of the regionally based various Ukrainian capitalists – the infamous oligarchs. True to their role throughout the entire region, they stirred up regionalism as well as division based on language (Russian vs. Ukrainian speakers).

We can see, however, the outlines of a solution to this seemingly irresolvable problem. A renewed workers movement leading to a socialist federation. The immediate elimination of all borders in one fell swoop does not seem any more possible than the immediate ending of all national and ethnic tensions. But between socialist countries with true workers governments, the tensions would quickly fade away and, one result would be that the borders would be far more porous, and collaboration between workers of the different countries would be far easier. Of course, even a partial victory for Putin’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine would make such a socialist federation nearly impossible.

In the last analysis, the entire approach of emphasizing national or ethnic divisions divides the working class along ethnic and national lines. Instead, as workers and especially as socialists, we see society divided along class lines, and also united along those lines. Such working class unity is impossible as long as one section of the class accepts the oppression of others in society, whether that be a national or religious or racial group, or women or LGBTQ people, or so long as we accept imperialist interventions like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Those two points, taken together, are the starting points.

iWhat follows is drawn largely from two books: First is “The Border” by Erika Fatland, and second is “The Caucasus” by Thomas de Waal.

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